Ahmad Abu Khawlah (3rd-R), chief of the Deir ez-Zor Military Council -- a coalition of Arab tribes and fighters that belongs to the broader US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces -- speaks during a press conference in the northeastern Syrian village of Abu Fas, on the southern outskirts of Hasakah province, on September 9, 2017. Photo: AFP / Delil Souleiman
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced on Saturday the launch of an operation to drive out ISIS militants from areas of Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province.
The forces will attack ISIS-held areas in the province from the north and east, along the Khabur River valley.
The operation is called “Jazira Storm’. It is codenamed after the Arabic word for the areas that are tasked to the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, part of the SDF.
Ahmad Abu Khawla, the commander of the Military Council, said they are thankful for the support they receive from the SDF, adding that the SDF will also take part in the operation.
Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesperson for the Global Coalition told Rudaw on Saturday that they are committed to supporting the SDF-led operation, adding "Daesh will have no safe haven in the Euphrates River Valley." Daesh is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Dillon described the forces tasked with Jazira Storm as indigenous tribes who are prepared to seize “their hometowns and their province from ISIS.”
The Coalition welcomed the announcement of the commencement of operations with commanding Lt. Gen. Paul E. Funk saying the Khabur River valley is a “strategic axis” leading towards ISIS’ holdout in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
The Khabur River runs south through Deir ez-Zor province, flowing into the Euphrates River about 35 kilometres east of Deir ez-Zor city.
The Coalition will support the offensive “as part of their ‘advise and assist’ mission, providing equipment, training, intelligence and logistics support, precision fires and battlefield advice,” it confirmed in a statement published Saturday afternoon.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that monitors the situation in Syria reported the Deir ez-Zor Military Council, backed by US special forces and the Global Coalition, had already made advances against ISIS in the northwest of the province, taking control of at least one village and a number of hilltops.
Tala Silo, the SDF spokesperson, told reporters in a village south of Hasakah province that the Military Council has taken part in all operations launched by the SDF and therefore it is natural that this time around the SDF will join the Deir ez-Zor operation.
Once military operations are complete, control of the areas liberated by the Military Council will be handed over to local civilian bodies, similar to what has occurred in Manbij and Tabqa, the Coalition stated.
The Syrian army and its allied militia forces are also present in southern Deir ez-Zor as they made some recent advances from the west, backed by Russia.
On Saturday afternoon, state-run SANA news reported Syrian troops had reached the military airport east of the city ending an ISIS siege on their forces there.
In breaking the siege on the military airport, regime forces have now linked up all the areas they held in Deir ez-Zor, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed.
Asked about potential confrontations between the SDF-backed forces and the Syrian army, Silo said the two forces are not in close proximity, but are located on opposite sides of the province. Khawla warned that if attacked, the SDF has the right to self-defense and will respond through force.
With regard to Turkey, Syria’s northern border, which considers the SDF an extension of Kurdish rebels in Turkey and therefore a terrorist organization, Silo said their operation is an “internal affair” that it is backed by the US-led Global Coalition and Turkey should not intervene in Syria.
The SDF, which is mainly Kurdish but has significant members from other components such as Arabs, denies any links between it and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish group that has staged a decades-long armed struggle against the Turkish state to gain greater national and cultural rights for millions of Kurds in Turkey.
Abu Khawla, from the Military Council, stated that the SDF are now in control of 70 percent of Raqqa, ISIS’ de facto capital in Syria since 2014.
British Army Maj. Gen. Rupert Jones, from the Coalition, said last month that the military campaign to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria will end in the Euphrates River valley, an area between the Syria-Iraq border and Deir ez-Zor.
Last updated at 7:03pm